The 5 Foundational Elements of an Executive Sponsor Program

This is an extract from the Executive Sponsor Program section of my book: Digital Sales Transformation in a Customer First World.

Executive customer visits are often clumsy attempts to close a deal that the account manager has not been able to close on their own. These types of meetings often do more harm than good; the account manager is undermined, the executive is relegated to the position of salesperson (or sales manager) and the customers can rightly feel offended if the only time they get attention from the executive is when the executive is focused on selling them something. We know that this is not the path to success and a better approach is to have a structured cadence of executive interaction – all mapped out through the five foundational elements of an effective Executive Sponsor Program:

  1. Program ownership
  2. Selecting the accounts
  3. Matching executive sponsors to accounts
  4. Role definition
  5. Measurement

1. Program ownership

The position of the Executive Sponsor Program owner varies across different organizations. In some cases it reports to Sales, in others to Marketing or Customer Success, and it can in many cases report directly to the CEO. The last makes most sense in my opinion as the customers who are selected to be part of the program typically represent a disproportionately high percentage of the company’s total revenue and the relationships are likely to be strategic in nature.

This further implies that the CEO must have direct input into or oversight of the Executive Sponsor Program design and execution, thereby communicating the strategic nature of the program to the rest of the organization.

2. Selecting the accounts

Your Executive Sponsor Program should be reserved for the accounts that are most valuable – today and into the future – to your business. Strategic value, current revenue, account retention, and growth potential are factors that you should consider. Strategic value can go beyond direct financial measures. The account may be a lighthouse customer in a new industry, a well-known brand that other companies follow, or a very competitive account that you are looking to maintain to keep competitors at bay.

You should identify the accounts to whom you can add the most value in the medium term and long term. There are some customers for whom you will deliver disproportionate value. These are the accounts for whom you will most easily gain strategic alignment and thereby achieve accelerated revenue growth.

There is also the customer’s perspective to consider. How important are you to them? Buyers re-evaluate their supplier relationships continuously to assess the value they receive or their organization’s dependency on different vendors. Using something like the Kraljic Matrix (see below), developed by Peter Kraljic to segment suppliers, your customer will place you in one of the quadrants in the matrix to reflect your profit (or revenue) impact on their business and the risk associated discontinuity of supply.

If you understand the customer’s viewpoint it will help you to make the decision as to whether this customer should be in your Executive Sponsor Program, and whether they will be willing to participate. When you are placed in either the Strategic or Bottleneck quadrants, it is likely that to limit their risk the customer will want to be close to you and engage in your Executive Sponsor Program. Because you’re not delivering high impact to them in the Bottleneck quadrant, you might not deem them to be a suitable candidate. Where you are delivering high impact, in the Leverage quadrant, but the customer views you as a commodity, you may want to engage the customer through the Executive Sponsor Program to better demonstrate your unique value and move towards the Strategic quadrant.

Not every account can or should be included in your Executive Sponsor Program. The value of an Executive Sponsor Program lies in large part in its exclusivity. So you need to ask whether the Executive Sponsor Program can add value to a particular account.

One final question that you should ask yourself before you put an account on the Executive Sponsor Program list: is the executive necessary to achieve the optimum value from the account? In a limited set of cases your account managers will have achieved all or most of the critical measures of success on their own. If that’s the case you should reserve the executive for an account where the executive’s presence will make a material difference. This may well be part of your strategic go-to-market approach, based on your Ideal Customer Profile, and effective market / account segmentation.

3. Matching executive sponsors to accounts

Selecting the right executives to participate is a critical first step in executing a successful Executive Sponsor Program. Typically the executive should be at Vice President level or above. The most important requirement however when selecting and matching executives for the program is that there is a good fit between the executive and the executives in the account. Consider cultural compatibility, executive style, proximity of location, existing relationship, pertinent market expertise, domain knowledge that will be considered valuable by the target customer executive, experience with similar customers, and any other common linkage between the customer executive and your executive.

The account manager should have greatest insight to the needs of their account and thus has an important role to play in selecting the executive sponsor for their customers. The relationship between the account manager and their own executive will be a key success driver of the program in that particular account. It is critical that there is a level of mutual trust and respect between the account manager who is in effect the quarterback in the account and the executive sponsor who is the coach.

Each executive sponsor should have responsibility for no more than three accounts. Because each engagement requires significant time and effort, and the executive has a separate full-time role, it is unwise to expect the executive to be able to commit the time and resources to more than three executive sponsor engagements. Exceptions to this rule may occur where the executive is directly involved in sales as their primary function.

4. Role definition

The executive sponsor’s role is to position and represent the company to the customer. The executive
sponsor should focus on the customer’s
industry, market dynamics and business
strategy and how the customer’s strategy can be advanced with help from your company. They should take a holistic company perspective and not focus on a specific product or a service. The customer needs to not only believe in your solution, which is the account manager’s responsibility, but also in the company, which is part of the executive’s role. The executive must not take the place of the account manager but seek to build the currency and credibility of the account manager. (In a separate post I will detail The Role of The Executive SponsorThe Role of The Account Manager, The Role of The Customer, and The Role of the Program Manager).

5. Measurement

The purpose of the Executive Sponsor Program is:

  • To establish your company as a trusted advisor to the senior executives in the customer organization
  • To achieve strategic alignment between the two companies as it pertains to the business problems that you solve
  • To increase customer satisfaction
  • To enable business growth for the customer through the broader application of your solutions.

This results in more sales opportunities and will ultimately increase your revenue.

The chart below provides a suggested list, by category, of the KPIs to measure and to assess the progress of an Executive Sponsor Program.

As mentioned previously, the Revenue component is a lagging indicator. Revenue should be measured and you should definitely have revenue goals in the account plan – but the most impactful KPIs for the Executive Sponsor Program should focus on the other areas and you should be able to achieve performance improvement.

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